Varcoe: Calgary tech firms think outside the box to entice workers from high-cost cities
Mar 19, 2022
Varcoe: Calgary tech firms think outside the box to entice workers from high-cost cities Back to video
While he grew up in Cochrane and attended university in Calgary before heading overseas, his family was living in the Toronto area at the time. It seemed like a natural place to search for a tech position, given the sheer size of the sector in Canada’s largest city. But it didn’t take Sekulic long to realize he was going to be westward bound. “I looked in Toronto, I looked in Vancouver and I looked in Calgary,” said the 28-year-old data analyst. “No matter how much I looked, as a young person coming back to Canada, I couldn’t make the math work for any of the jobs that were attainable in Toronto or Vancouver … I didn’t see a future in any of those really high-cost places and it led me back to Calgary.”
Sekulic found a job at the online payment firm Helcim last spring. Advertisement 3
Calgary’s burgeoning technology sector hopes such stories become a common occurrence as the industry takes off, but it needs more “talent” to fuel the ride. Local startups raised record amounts of venture capital last year and have aggressive plans to grow, yet they’re also running head-on into the global challenge of finding enough skilled workers to turn their strategies into reality. Facing competition to attract new employees for high-demand occupations, such as software developers or data analysts, companies are thinking outside the box. Some are searching for employees in expensive cities such as Toronto, where the average price of a single-detached home sat above $2 million last month, compared to just under $600,000 in Calgary. Advertisement 4
“People are now starting to see there are these opportunities in Calgary,” said Brad Parry, CEO of Calgary Economic Development. Other firms are hiring fresh faces out of post-secondary institutions with plans to provide additional training. Some are moving into attractive new inner-city offices with a host of amenities to draw people into the workplace or they’re looking at other unique ways to recruit staff. “We purchased a corporate condo and make it available to all employees who are not in Calgary to come and stay here and work with the team,” said Athennian CEO Adrian Camara, whose software firm officially opened up a new headquarters in the Beltline this week. “There are quite a number of employees who aren’t from Calgary who are actively talking about moving here.”
Athennian, which has developed a cloud software program that is used by legal teams, has about 100 employees, including 70 in the city, and plans to grow to about 300 in the next two years. The company has hired staff from other countries such as Brazil. It’s also thinking about offering candidates a moving allowance or bonus to come to the city. “We are talking to some other tech companies about doing sort of a co-ordinated program on that. We just think there is strength in numbers,” said Camara. There are more than 2,300 open technology-related jobs in the city today. Post-secondary institutions are creating additional training spots while new programs are “reskilling” Albertans to work in the industry, but there are also more companies searching for personnel. Advertisement 6
There were 1,627 tech companies in Calgary last year. In 2018, the number stood at 767, according to a study by Alberta Enterprise Corp.
International players such as Amazon Web Services, Infosys and Mphasis are also expanding their presence in the city. And Calgary startup firms are raising more money, enabling them to scale up. In Calgary, 66 deals were reported last year that raised $500 million, according to a report by the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association. (Toronto’s tech players attracted almost $5.9 billion of venture capital.) With more money comes greater expectations. “Patient capital is not out there anymore. You raise a big chunk of dough and you are expected to have a fully functioning senior team in less than a quarter,” said Parry. Advertisement 7
“So this idea of investing in training to build out the skill set is fantastic.”
The new year is off to a strong start for some firms raising money. Validere Technologies announced this week it has raised $55 million in a Series B financing round. Validere provides a commodity management platform to the energy sector and its software can create a “digital fingerprint” for molecules of oil and gas, said Mark Le Dain, a senior vice-president with the company. The new funds will allow Validere to hire more staff at its offices in Calgary, Toronto and Houston. The company has tripled its local employee count in the past two years — and hopes to double it within the next two years. “As an owner-operator, I’d say it is stressful finding good talent,” said Le Dain. “But as a citizen of the city, I’m super happy those forces are pushing people and companies to retrain to fill the gap — or to just hire and move people to what is a premier city in North America.”
Helcim has grown to 115 people from about 50 back in June 2020. It expects to reach 250 by the end of next year, said CEO Nic Beique. The fintech company is looking to hire for a range of jobs, from marketing specialists and software developers to finance and data analysts. With competition to find intermediate and senior employees, the firm has focused on hiring new graduates or junior staff and providing them training. “We’re seeing people, especially from Vancouver and Toronto, apply for positions at Helcim and be willing to move. We’ve hired a half-dozen people from those cities in the past six months,” Beique added. “It’s a combination of the cost of living being completely out of reach for junior professionals in those big cities now, as well as Helcim being … willing to invest in that training.”
It’s hard to quantify how many tech workers might move into the province, but interprovincial migration to Alberta turned positive in the second half of 2021 after five years of going in the wrong direction. “We’re starting to see the influx of people migrating to Alberta and we’re anticipating that trend is going to continue,” said Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer. “A lot of that talent is coming for the technology and innovation jobs.”
Add Sekulic to the list of people coming to Alberta — or, in his case, coming back — to take a new job in the tech industry. And since he arrived last year, he’s also become a homeowner. “Calgary has a lot to offer to young people who are getting started in the career,” Sekulic added. “It’s been a fantastic decision.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.